The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin

The Porcupinity of the Stars The Porcupinity of the StarsGary Barwin; Coach House Books 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
I ordered this book on the strength of the author’s video for one of the poems in it, “Inverting the Deer” (embedded below). I’d never heard of the author before, though he seems to be quite well known in Canada as a fiction writer and children’s author as well as a poet.

I’ve been dipping into The Porcupinity of the Stars off and on for a week now, and when I went to read it in a more methodical fashion this morning, I was a little abashed to realize how heavily my poem of last night, “Garden Party,” had been influenced by Barwin’s imagery. There’s no mystery where that nearly forgotten memory of buried TVs came from: the book fairly bristles with images of televisions and burial, and even the burial of televisions. Here, for example, is “Planting Consent”:

I carried my TV down the stairs
buried it on a hill
with a beautiful view

by spring a small antenna
sprouted in that place

somewhere under the earth
wispy clouds and the wingbeats of birds

Barwin is a surrealist, as this example demonstrates, and my favorite poems in the book were those that explored just a few images, as “Planting Consent” does. Some of the poems failed to cohere for me — which isn’t to say I didn’t still enjoy reading them. More than anything else, this book is fun, and even the craziest or most experimental poems have memorable lines and images. For example, the opening stanza of “A Roof Floored” —

the stone hopes for flight
the way a goose
wants power chords

— made me chuckle, thinking of Aldo Leopold’s treasured “goose music” turned into heavy metal. And I loved its closing lines, too:

we sit before the mirror
use night as a balast

So my inability to make complete sense of the poem as a whole is almost beside the point. I’ve read countless more accessible poems that didn’t make as big an impression.

Surrealism often serves decidely bleak poetic visions — I’ll be blogging at least one example later this month — but Barwin’s vision in these poems seems more comic than tragic. When dismemberments occur, they are more in the spirit of Rabelais than Goya. Nor is the comic worldview unequal to the global crises of the 21st Century, as Barwin shows in poems such as “We Are Family”:

an organism which sleeps
soft as a cloth

a baby in a bed full of babies
and the earth full of babies


I wake and switch on the bedside light
there’s a glacier in my bed
ice, it says
snow, it says
it turns and presses its cold mouth on mine

and “Shopping for Deer”:

when I die, I will remember the deer
I will remember its wheels and antlers
I will remember its flesh and lightning
its womb of silver bones

The title poem was a bit of a disappointment, being entirely too random for my taste, but the longer poem immediately preceding it, “Small Supper,” was a masterpiece, beginning with what I took to be a variation on the age-old conflation of human souls with birds — “we placed our shadows inside birds / where they couldn’t be found” — and ending with “a bird’s small shadow … in my chest”. Even in such a potentially serious poem, though, humor crackles in lines such as “The shadow of a shadow / is my friend” and “it’s not so much that Polly wants a cracker / but that the lark wants its small supper of sky”.

Barwin employs a large vocabulary of cultural references, ranging from the Old Testament to jazz to, in one poem, “old testament jazz.” I read a number of these poems to my friend Rachel, who felt that some of them evoked for her — and perhaps betrayed the influence of — specific surrealist painters. They’re certainly very vivid. I guess my take-away impression is of a wildness that seizes and infects, an ensorceling that is by turns grotesque and cybernetic.

I’ve barely begun to quote my favorite poems from the book; suffice it to say I’ll be returning to it often. I do want to mention one other thing about it that pleased me: it’s printed on very good quality paper, the kind with a grain. (Sorry, I don’t know much about paper!) So while the publisher does offer ebook options, I’d recommend paying a few dollars extra for the print edition. Also, it may not be apparent from the small image above, but the deer on the cover is wearing athletic socks. Which is almost as cool as the deer in the video Barwin made:

Watch on YouTube

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